Mission & Ministry - Book of the Month Review: Atonement for a Sinless Society

The Bishop's Institute Book of the Month - April

"Atonement for a Sinless Society: Second Edition", by Alan Mann; reviewed by The Rev. Cn David Erickson

Perhaps you have noticed on Sunday mornings that there seems to be a generation of people missing from the pews.  Yes, we have member of all ages in our congregation, but the average age of those present in Episcopal churches on Sunday mornings has risen over the last 30 years from 35 years old to 63.  What has been going on?  Maybe our message of Jesus' Grace and God's Kingdom is not being received because the way we are telling it cannot be heard.

Ten years ago, Alan Mann wrote the book "Atonement for a Sinless Society," and began a conversation about the need to reframe the story of the Atonement in ways, and with language, that reflected the needs and connects with the circumstances of our current era.  Using reputable scholarship, in particular the book "Recovering the Scandal of the Cross," by Joel B. Green and Mark D Baker, Mann points out that the biblical writers themselves had multiple understandings of the atoning work of the cross of Christ.  Mann also shows how, throughout history, faithful Christians have used those understanding to make the story of Jesus' crucifixion present and transformative in their day and age.  Ten years ago, Mann called for a conversation to create the same opportunity for Christ's atoning work on the cross to be present and transformative in our day and age. 

With the second edition of "Atonement with a Sinless Society", Mann now gives us his answer to that question. HIs answer offers us a profound freedom from what traditionally has been known as sin, but what we comprehend in our society as Shame.

In the first section of his book, Mann charts the demise of sin in the storytelling vocabulary of the defining culture in the West.  This defining culture has not only moved us away from a meaningful understanding of the historical word sin (and in some cases, glorifying that same word) but also down a path to the cult of victimhood and the loss of any coherent moral categories. Perhaps most tragically, this same path has lead us away from any true sense of the "other/Other", our fellow humans and God.

In this new paradigm, while we are able to push away sin and guilt in relation to others, the intensity of the emphasis on the self this new world offers us has created a crippling phenomenon, which we label Shame.  Shame, our failure to live to an ideal that we have created for ourselves, instills in us deep incoherence.  We crave a unified sense of ourselves, but are impotent to attain it.  We become lost to others, and to ourselves. 

The second section of the book, Mann explores the emerging concept of narrative therapy and the possibility for personal narrative to construct, deconstruct, and most vitally, reconstruct the self.  In a society of Shame, we create cover stories to protect us from the fear that our real self will be exposed and we will be despised. Narrative therapists see their job as providing freeing counter stories to our cover stories. Mann explains that conversion, at one level, is nothing more than embracing an alternative story for the self to inhabit.  Therefore, a narrative approach to the atonement is more likely to engage the self and society with its meaning. Christian soteriology, therefore, becomes the joining of the individual's story with the story of the Christian Community, and with the story of God

The third Section of the book introduces us to the story of the atonement as told through the Passion Narratives and read through the lens of Shame. In this setting, Jesus is offered to us as the example of, and power to have, Coherence.  Jesus is able to coherently hold together the ideal self and the real self, fundamental in constructing a model of atonement for the "sinless" self. Coherence is simply living free from shame. 

Counter to Jesus story of Coherence, Mann offers us the example of Judas as a prime example of incoherence.  Mann recognizes some of the dangers in such an exploration, and mediates them well. He also extends the metaphor to all the disciples and their inability to have consistency between intention and action.  Finally, we too have to ask the question that all the disciples asked in the Upper Room; has our incoherence caused us to betray our lord as well? Are we also the Betrayer?

It is on the cross where Jesus proclaims his ultimate Coherence.  The cross is not a declaration that the narrative of Jesus has collapsed and become unintelligible, nor is it the ultimate shaming of Jesus.  Rather, the cross is the public reality of the private declaration in the Upper Room.  This had to be so, for narration of intent without significant action leaves all concerned with no hope for salvation. 

In the final section, Mann finds a "home" for encountering and appropriating these narratives of atonement through the Christian community's continual re-enactment of them in the Eucharist. The Eucharist becomes a place for the shamed and isolated self to discover, perhaps for the first time, transcendence and otherness, to be atoned for, to be reconciled and to be authored by the Creator of life. 

Mann's book is thrilling and challenging.  It inspires true potential for Jesus' narrative to once again be "Good News" to a society alienated from "sin."  In proclaiming this good news, however, we need to critically look at our current liturgical constructs and theological language and ask ourselves if they truly provide salvation to a world in need, or do they simply make us feel comfortable on a Sunday morning?

Atonement for a Sinless Society: Second Edition by Alan Mann

134 pg.  Copyright 2015.  Cascade Books. Eugene OR.